Skills and hostility to migration

Today saw publication of the results from the 34th British Social Attitudes Survey. Every year, a team of social researchers asks a sample of around 3,000 people about their views on current social issues. You can find the results on the NatCen website:, and I always find them well worth reading.

The 2014 Survey included some revealing questions on people’s attitudes to immigration. We already know from previous research that the most highly educated individuals tend to be the most welcoming towards immigrants. Because the Survey belongs to an international consortium of similar studies, we can compare this pattern across countries. The results show that when analysed by level of education, attitudes in Britain are more polarised than in other European countries.

I’d be interested to know why this is so. My guess is that it might have something to do with our polarised education system, which in turn creates considerable social and economic distance between people from different socio-economic classes. It may also have to do with the strength of the low skills economy here, as well as the strong cultural stigma attached to low skills in Britain. These are (informed) guesses, and it’d be great to see some serious research on the issue.

The 2014 Survey also allowed for comparison of attitudes over time. For me, the most interesting finding here concerns the decline of race/ethnicity and religion as the basis for accepting immigrants, and the rise of skills and qualifications (along with command of the language). This suggests greater tolerance on one level, as well as a shift towards selection of immigrants on the basis of the capabilities that they bring. 

Is this connected with the educational polarisation that the Survey also reported? It could be that there is a degree of self-interest at work: the highly skilled and educated are the most mobile, and therefore can be expected to favour migration in general; the least skilled and educated are most vulnerable to competition from unskilled migrants, and therefore favour selection by skill. Or perhaps skills and qualifications now serve as a socially acceptable basis for discrimination (not only against foreigners, of course). But again, it would be worth going further into these figures to see what lies behind them.

Finally, the Survey also reports a small rise in those who think immigrants need to be committed to the British way of life. Exactly what this means is of course rather fuzzy, as the report makes clear. And we should remember that the Survey took place before the Brexit vote and before this year’s wave of terror attacks, whose effects on social attitudes are still unknown. 

School cheating and social capital

I’ve always been interested in the contradictory consequences of people’s social connections. While the literature on social capital has shown conclusively that there are far-reaching positive benefits, there is also a clear ‘down side’. I’m revising my book on social capital for a new edition, and have been reading up on recent research that addresses the negative as well as positive effects.

soc cap book

In a particularly interesting study, two Italian scholars have examined the relationship between social capital and cheating in school achievement tests. We should note that these were so-called ‘low stakes’ tests: the results are not published, and they have little or no impact on student grades. Their main finding was that cheating was higher in schools situated in neighbourhoods with low scores on several social capital measures. So far, then, the study seems to support the positive story of social capital’s benevolent consequences.

Next, though, they looked at the prevalence in neighbourhoods of two broad sets of values, universalistic and particularistic. Their data showed that cheating was negatively associated with the former but positively with the latter. Finally, they found that cheating was more frequent when teachers were from the local community as well as when the students were relatively homogeneous in terms of social status and ethnicity. This brings us closer to understanding why some forms of social capital are liable to produce ‘negative externalities’.

Why taking part in the OECD Skills Survey is a good idea

OECD’s Adult Skills Survey has been hitting headlines across Europe. Newspapers and magazines in France, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, Australia, Korea and Canada have been full of it – as has much of the British press. But there is a curious silence north of the border, where the Scottish Government decided that it wanted no part of this particular piece of comparative research.

For all I know, the Scottish Government has extremely good reasons. A senior civil servant told me some time ago that the budget for social research had been cut back to the bone. As a result, the Government had decided to withdraw from some existing international surveys (the 2011 wave of the PIRLS survey of schools literacy, for example), and not to take part in the OECD survey of adult skills.

Further, I would expect the Government, if anyone asks, to point out that it published its own study of adult skills in 2009. But this survey used different instruments from OECD (it adopted the same instruments as those used for the previous OECD survey in 1996). Useful though this survey was, it took a different approach from the later survey, covered a more limited range of skills, and analysed them in less depth. And it was confined to one country, thought this did not stop the authors of the report from expressing satisfaction at Scotland’s ‘creditable placement’ against other countries’ performance in 1996.

Whatever the reason, Scotland did not form part of the 2011-12 Survey, which has now been published. On the plus side, the taxpayer has saved some money – or, more accurately, the citizens will enjoy the benefits of spending being allocated elsewhere. But there is a pretty massive down side as well.

Taking part provides a massive volume of data, collected using internationally agreed instruments that have been developed and tested over four years. This allows policy-makers, researchers and the wider public to undertake an informed benchmarking of their own country’s performance and to see how it stacks up against others.

This in turn turns a spotlight onto adult learning. Berni Brady, director of the Irish adult education organisation AONTAS, appeared on prime time explaining what the results meant for Ireland, and calling for the government to recognise the needs of adult learners in its new strategy for further education and training. In Britain, the BBC’s chief business editor, Robert Peston, wrote and spoke about competitiveness and adult skills.

The Survey has also shed light on some discrepancies in national performance levels. In England, media attention quickly seized on the literacy and numeracy scores of young adults, who did notable worse than older generations. Matthew Hancock, the Coalition Minister for Skills, promptly blamed the previous government’s schools policies, neatly side-stepping the fact that whoever is to blame, these 16-24-olds are already of working age.

Incidentally, Hancock’s claim doesn’t say much about his own numeracy skills. Someone who was 24 when the survey took place in 2011 would have entered school in 1991 or 1992, well before Labour came to power. However, there is enough basis in his claim to pose a few uncomfortable questions for Labour education ministers, along with those academics and others who advised them. But at least we have the data. In Scotland, where there would be huge interest in knowing how schoolchildren fared under devolution, we simply lack comparable information.

Of course, the OECD Survey can easily become a flash in the pan. Having bowed and danced in the spotlight, adult learning could soon find itself in the familiar gloom of the margins, as all the fuss and debate moves back to schools and universities. But that is partly up to those who are interested in adult learners and the institutions that support them. The OECD’s results provide us with plenty of material to nourish debate for some time to come – if we want it.

Reforming teaching qualifications in lifelong learning

I’ve just completed a survey on the proposed new structure of teaching qualifications in further education in England. Following a review led by Lord Lingfield, government is now consulting on a number of proposals, including suggestions for new generic teaching qualifications and a number of specialist areas such as literacy, numeracy, ESOL and learning disabilities.

I rather like some of the reforms. These include new qualifications at Level 3 (roughly equivalent to A-Levels) and Level 4 (roughly equivalent to first year undergraduate) as well as a new Diploma at Leven 7 (roughly equivalent to the level expected in a Masters’ degree). The first two levels would, as I see it, give a staged progression route for those who are entering teaching and developing a career in further education, while the Level 7 Diploma would support staff working in higher education, along with those who teach on the teaching qualifications.

So in general, my responses to the proposals were very positive, with one exception. Government is proposing that the new Level 5 Diploma should comprise 60 credits – half of the previous level in England (though it is the same as the Teaching Qualification in FE in Scotland). Because of this reduction, the new Diploma will concentrate on ‘core knowledge and skills’, with no scope for specialist credit, or for much in the way of an underpinning understanding of learning and its contexts. In spite of this change, it hopes that the Diploma will be recognised as equivalent to the current Certificate in Education.

I have three main concerns about the L5 Diploma. At the simplest level, that of perception, there is a strong likelihood that it will be derided as ‘Mickey Mouse’. This term is such a cliche, but it will be damaging nevertheless, not least to the morale of those who earn a Diploma and are then ridiculed in the staff room.

More seriously, the English qualification will look both narrow and weak when compared with parallel qualifications. It will look thin in comparison with the qualifications typically held by school teachers or early years teachers, and this will limit its’ holders status and careers.

It will also look a bit under-cooked in comparison with other European countries. Teachers in German Berufschulen, for instance, must first either work for a substabntial period in their profession or complete a nine-semester programme in a university, specialising in two subjects along with education. Both groups then enter a specialist institution for three or four semesters of practical training. I find this excessive, but we can easily guess which group of teachers – German and English – enjoys the higher standing in their respective countries.

Worse still, the L5 Diploma would lead to a focus on compliance with core standards, with little opportunity for either breadth or specialisation. Given the diversity of the sector and its students, and the rather dispersed and fragmented nature of the profession, this strikes me as highly damaging.

All of that said, some of the reforms are likely to prove popular, and should help improve the experiences of people trying to enter further education teaching as a career. What happens after they have entered it will largely depend on how the sector develops in the next few years.


The LSIS survey is at

Pete Caldwell of the WEA has written an interesting blog on the reforms as seen from an adult educator’s perspective:

Inspecting education – value for money?

Educational inspection has undergone a number of changes since it was introduced in the early nineteenth century, but it has always been controversial. When Ann Walker of the Workers Educational Association, recently tweeted a link to a report on the cost of OFSTED, the responses confirmed that the current inspection regime arouses strong feelings. Many people also expressed surprise over the cost of the system, estimated in the report at £207m a year, or 0.27 per cent of all education spending.

The report appeared in 2009. It is a brief document, and its main focus is not on OFSTED but on the broader issue of how governments attempt to ‘manage by numbers’. The authors did not give a date for their figures, reasonably enough as the report was a summary of an ESRC research programme. Their calculation, though, is clearly based on figures for inspection under the Labour government, and probably come from 2007.

How does this compare with the cost of inspection under the Coalition? I’ve looked at the data for 2010-11, which is the most recent year for which financial statements are available. I have also looked at the financial statements for the Scottish and Welsh inspectorate, and compared them with total  education spending for each country as reported by the Treasury, in its public expenditure statistical analysis for the same year.

The first point to note is that OFSTED consumes 0.278% of all educational spending in England. This is slightly higher than under Labour as a share of the total. While the amount spent on OFSTED has fallen, standing at £196.5m, so has the education budget.

The Welsh Assembly spent £11.7m on Estyn, which is equivalent to 0.271% of the total education expenditure for Wales. While this is slightly less than in England, the difference is not huge.  

The Scottish Government devoted £17.5m of its education budget to inspection. At 0.217% of the total education spending, this does come out rather cheaper than OFSTED.

Admittedly, public spending on education per head of population is much higher in Scotland. And public spending per capita on inspection is accordingly higher in Scotland. Even so, it seems to have the most cost-effective inspection regime of the three British nations – and I am not aware of a shred of evidence that this has damaged the quality of teaching.

In all three British nations, the inspectorate accounts for around a quarter of one per cent of the education budget. This is not the total cost of course, as it ignores time spent by teachers and others producing reports and preparing for the inspection process.

Nor does it tell us whether the inspection systems offer good value for money. Every penny spent on inspection is money that could have been spent on front-line staff, and the differences between England and Scotland suggest that OFSTED might have a few questions to answer.

Christopher Hood, Ruth Dixon and Deborah Wilson (2009), Managing by Numbers: The way to make public services better? Available at

University applications in 2012: continuity rather than change?

Well, now we know. Tuition fees affect people’s decisions on whether they want to attend university. We can now start examing the detailed figures for all those who applied through the central admissions scheme, in the hope of entering university this autumn. And because of the rapid rise in tuition fees in England this year, public interest has been intense. In fact, I am amazed that the UCAS[1] website didn’t crash. Now that we finally have them, what do the figures tell us?

 The main message is that not that much has changed. This isn’t the headline news – the BBC led its report with the statement that ‘university applications are down 9%’. And so they are, though in Scotland the fall was only 1.5%. This isn’t great for the universities, but to understand what is happening we need to look, not at the headline, but at underlying trends in participation. A much better way of doing this is to measure the numbers of applicants against the number of people in the relevant age group. And this leads us to a rather different conclusion.

 The 2012 applications figures show that young people are still flocking to higher education. In England, the proportion of 18-year-olds who applied through UCAS fell by around 1%. At 34%, it is now the same as it was in 2010, itself a bumper year, thanks to a combination of the recession and a rush to beat the introduction of fees. And it is still higher than Scotland, where some 31% of young people applied, and Wales, where the figure falls to around 29%.

 Once you allow for the declining numbers of school-leavers in our ageing populations in all three British nations, then, around one third of 17-18 year olds apply for a university place through UCAS. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no obvious sign that the new fee regime has altered this pattern.

 Nor has it had much discernable effect on deterring the least privileged. UCAS has provided figures for application rates among young people living in the one-fifth of areas with the lowest participation rates in higher education. The application rate from this group has risen in Wales and Northern Ireland. In England and Scotland, it has fallen. In all cases, the changes are so slight that they may not tell us much. And they certainly do not represent a mass retreat from the (often unnoticed) pattern of steady growth in demand from this socio-economic group since around 2000.

 As we might expect, the number of Scottish applicants to universities in England and Wales has fallen. There has been a sharp rise in applications to Glasgow University, which has posted relatively low fee levels for non-Scottish UK students; but there were larger rises at Heriot-Watt and St Andrews. Within Scotland, the largest rise in applications was for the University of the Highlands and Islands, admittedly from a relatively low baseline. Harder to explain is the 12% decline in applications to Strathclyde. But some movement always takes place on a year-by-year basis, so I don’t read too much into this.

 There is also some turbulence in people’s subject choices, though it is of course not clear whether this is a consequence of fees. Social science, communications and creative arts are all down, as many of us might have expected; so are applications for languages, technologies and architectual studies, all of which I thought would benefit as students became more canny about their future careers. But none of these are momentous collapses or volcanic eruptions.

 On the other hand, we do see a clear decline in demand from mature students. Compared with 2011, the number of applicants aged 25-9 has fallen by almost 12%, while the numbers of 30-9s and over-40s fell by 10%. Of course, the UCAS figures only relate to applicants for full-time study; we will not know until later this year – if then – what has happened to demand for part-time places.

 There is also a fall in application rates among the 21-4 age group. For England and Wales, the fall is clear, and it continues what we can now see as a downward trend that was already apparent in 2011. In Scotland, by contrast, the application rate among these ‘young mature students’ rose in both years. But the fall should not be overstated: in all of the home nations, the demand for places remains higher among 21-4 year-olds than it was in 2009.

 A quick look at gender tells us that women continue to outnumber men among university applicants. If anything, the gap increased slightly, as in Wales and Scotland the number of male applicants fell while the number of females grew. In England, the application rate fell for both genders, but the fall was greater for men. So the gender gap in British higher education looks set to increase, but this is broadly in line with existing trends.

 Finally, UCAS provides an analysis of demand from overseas applicants. The number of applicants from the rest of the European Union has fallen by some 10%, except in Scotland where it has risen by 6% (and as the number of places is capped, this may lead to pressure for places from home candidates). Irish applicants have plummeted by almost 20%, but the number of non-EU overseas applicants has risen significantly, confounding the expectations of those who predicted that new visa rules would reduce demand from outside the EU.

 Where does this leave us? The first conclusion is that the impact of higher fees appears to have significantly reduced demand from mature students. Part-time students do not apply through UCAS, and they already pay fees in all the UK systems, so can not yet see whether there are similar patterns of reduced demand. But the early evidence suggests that a high fee system is unlikely to favour lifelong learning. Instead, a high fee system will focus increasingly on the recruitment and teaching of school-leavers.

 For the second conclusion is that, so far, there is little evidence in the UCAS figures of a serious decline in demand among young applicants. Be that as it may, the most surprising thing for me is just how little has changed in patterns of demand among the young. Despite my concerns over the system’s turn away from lifelong learning, I am heartened to see the consolidation of growing participation among young disasvantaged people – and starting to think there is something to be discussed over the gender gap.

 There’s still some way to go before we can be clear about what is happening to university participation in Britain. Many mature students apply direct to their local HEI, rather than through UCAS. Part-time applicants don’t use UCAS at all. And 2012 may be a blip for al sorts of reasons; a longer view may show us that participation did indeed fall as dramatically as the fees critics expected, or that demand was as resilient as the government hoped.

 Above all, these data don’t tell us whether fees are a good thing or not. For what it’s worth, my own view is that fees are defensible in principle. There is a strong case for arguing that a universal public service should be free at the point of use, particularly when that service is overwhelmingly a public good. The debate, for me, is then about the way in which the higher education system functions; public funding should promote the public good and secure wider access, but the system remains highly selective in who it takes and the benefits that they gain. But that is another matter.

 Overall, then, it looks at first as though the UK’s higher education systems will face business more or less as usual. In some respects, this is not a surprise. Anyone who teaches new undergraduates knows that most young students are not focusing single-mindedly on their future career. And of course, things might have looked very different if the labour market for 17-18 year olds looked a lot brighter than it does. I have written elsewhere about the role of higher and further education in providing a shelter from the recession for those might otherwise enter the labour market. Although fees may be damaging mature participation, there is as yet little evidence that they are reducing demand among young applicants.

Paper on higher education and the recession available at:

[1] Universities Council for Admissions Services

Learning our way out? Ireland’s presidential election

 I’ m in Dublin this week, attending AONTAS’ annual conference on community education. Ireland’s economic woes have tended to overshadow everything else in recent years, so it will be a welcome opportunity to catch up with colleagues and listen to what is going on in the adult education community. And to find out what the Irish think of their new president.

 As a nation, Ireland exercises an influence out of all proportion to its size. This is partly due to the size of its ‘diaspora’, and their continuing attachment to their ancestral home; partly to its history, which has placed it at a crossroads between Europe and North America; and partly to the wider appeal of a set of symbols and values that many people think of as distinctively Irish. One of these symbols, in recent years, has been the office of President of Ireland.

 The Uachtarain na hÉireann has few real political powers; but the sheer intelligence, grace and force of personality of Mary Robinson and Mary MacAleese have endowed the role with real standing in the world. At first sight, Ireland’s latest President looks set to strengthen his role’s symbolic authority. Michael D. Higgins is, among other things, a scholar, intellectual and poet. And although he is also a veteran Labour Party politician, he has signalled a willingness to reach out and include all Ireland’s citizens, in a modern manner (one small symbol of this was his invitation to the Humanist Association to join the inauguration, alongside representatives of Ireland’s main faiths).

 It isn’t for me to judge or predict his likely impact on Irish politics, but I do want to draw attention to two aspects of his inaugural speech. First is his emphasis on social solidarity. In telling terms, he argued that the banking collapse, and the financial damage that followed, ‘has left us fragile as an economy, but most of all wounded as a society’. Building a sustainable economy and an inclusive society will, he suggested, require a common search for new values based on ‘an active, inclusive citizenship’. He quoted the Irish proverb: ní neart go cur le chéile, ‘our strength lies in our common weal’.

 Second, President Higgins signalled a new approach to the presidency’s leadership role.  In promoting inclusion and creative thinking, he announced plans for a series of presidency seminars to explore themes that go beyond a particular and specific political agenda. The first is to focus on ‘being young in Ireland’ – a raw topic, at a time when one young adult in eight is unemployed, with lasting scarring consequences that will follow these young people through their life course, and when emigration is again evoking memories of past despair over Ireland’s future. Other topics pencilled in include the restoration of trust in public institutions, and the ethical compact between economy and society. 

 This is more than a hint at the idea of a learning presidency, and hopefully also the broader ambition of a learning society. Of course, not all of the inaugural speech was new: Michael D. Higgins is far too experienced a politician to forget the importance of emphasising a common past, a unifying heritage. Nor is this the end. Inaugurations are a beginning, and much remains to be done. But for once, an inclusive dialogue, and an open approach to social and political learning, could move to the top of the political agenda.